Venice has no shortage of palaces-turned-museums thanks to its prosperous past as a wealthy trade center from medieval times through the Renaissance. The stately marble palazzi that line the Grand Canal are basically works of art themselves, filled with antiquities and hand painted frescoes by some of Italy’s greatest masters.
But this city of waterside mansions and picturesque canals has more to offer than Baroque architecture and gilded attractions. Every two years, the canals and historic buildings of La Serenissima become the backdrop to La Biennale—one of the most prestigious and forward thinking events in the contemporary art world, and by far one of the best things to do in Venice.
From galleries filled with modern masterpieces, artisan craftsmanship and historic palaces, here are the best museums in Venice.
Best museums in Venice
American heiress Peggy Guggenheim was an avid art collector who lived in Venice for three decades. The unique 18th century palace she called home is instantly recognizable on the Grand Canal for its low and understated stone façade amongst so many towering lace-like mansions on every side. Though minimalist from the outside, today the palazzo has been converted into one of Italy’s most famous modern art museums. Stroll through the heiress’s old dining room, study and salons to admire work that spans from cubism to abstract expressionism.
Venice was a wealthy independent republic for hundreds of years with a Doge acting as the head of the government. Starting back in 810, the Doge decided he needed a new palace fit for his princely role and moved his apartments and state house to the Rialto area. A succession of Doge’s rebuilt the palace several times over the centuries, each making it grander and more opulent. Set on the edge of St. Mark’s Square, the palace is now a museum where it is possible to walk through beautiful loggias, up a brilliant golden stucco staircase, and through the dazzling halls where Venice’s past powerhouse status is on full display.
Ca’ is the Venetian abbreviation for casa or “house” but this home sweet home happens to be an elaborate palace on the Grand Canal built by the Pesaro family in the 17th century. The Pesaro’s were great collectors of art including commissioning works by Titian and Tintoretto, but their artwork was sold when the palace changed hands. The last owner of Ca’ Pesaro was a duchess who donated the building to the City of Venice as a frescoed space for a museum of Modern Art. The museum’s central hall showcases pieces of the work that the city has acquired at each Biennale since 1950. There are also notable paintings by the likes of Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Mirò and Kandinsky.
The wealthy Venetian Republic had plenty of cash to splash out on art to decorate the noble palaces that sprung up along its picturesque canals. As a result, the city has also been home to many notable Italian masters including Bellini, Canaletto, Tiepolo and Titian, to name a few. If this kind of pre-18th century art is your particular cup of tea then the Gallerie dell’Accademia is the place to be. It has the best collection of period Venetian art, as well as that ever-so-famous drawing of the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci.
In 1478, a group of well-to-do Venetians banded together to establish a confraternity (think: a gentleman’s club with a charitable twist) dedicated to San Rocco – a saint believed to protect against the plague. They erected their meeting hall next to the church that housed the remains of the saint and commissioned Tintoretto to decorate the new building. The masterful Italian painter produced more than 60 works for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco based on the Old and New Testaments. The result is a jaw-dropping series of salons that hold some of Tintoretto’s best work, as well as masterpieces by Titian and Tiepolo, among others.
The most seasoned art lover can feel overwhelmed by the amount of Renaissance art in Venice, so the François Pinault Collection comes as a welcome contemporary break amidst all the Baroque and Rococo. The French billionaire has one of the most important private collections of 20th and 21st century art in the world. Most of the three thousand pieces have a permanent home in Venice split between two museums: Punta della Dogana, a distinctive triangular building that was once the customs house, and Palazzo Grassi. The interiors of both historic buildings have been remodeled by Japanese architect Tadao Ando to create sleek interiors fit for the modern-day masterpieces.
The former home of eclectic Spanish designer and artist Mariano Fortuny, this Gothic palazzo was once owned by the same Pesaro family that built Ca’ Pesaro. Fortuny made the building his own, transforming it into an atelier, painting studio and overall workshop for his many artistic pursuits. The unique museum is split between displays bursting with the collections of paintings and textiles that Fortuny amassed, as well as clean and contemporary exhibition spaces that tell the history of the artist and the palace he once called home.
This charming house-museum was once the residence of the noble Querini Stampalia family. While Venice is full of distinguished palaces, this museum is unique in how perfectly preserved it appears. Full of personal treasures like globes and porcelain figures, as well as the obligatory sculptures and lush fabrics, the museum offers a look at what it would have been like to live like an aristocratic Venetian in the 1800s. Naturally, this includes an extensive art collection of more than 400 paintings acquired over the centuries, including pieces by Giovanni Bellini and Giambattista Tiepolo.
Venice’s most famous luxury export hails from the island of Murano, which sits a short vaporetto ride away across the lagoon. The island is best known for its hand-blown Murano glass which is used to make everything from budget-busting chandeliers down to chintzy bottle toppers. Murano’s Glass Museum pays homage to this important Venetian craft while also documenting the history of the fragile material from ancient times through the 20th century. Full of delicate trinkets, the galleries glorify an artisan skill that is sadly slowly disappearing.
Where Murano is famous for its glass, the colorful Venetian island of Burano gained notoriety for its delicate lace making. Once the preferred sartorial garnish of aristocrats around the world, dainty lace was a hot commodity and the talented lace makers of Burano produced some of the most coveted frills of all. The homey museum feels a bit like a trip to Grandma’s attic, with treasured handmade textiles tucked into glass drawers.